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BETWEEN THE PANELS 2 (Begin Reading)
Broxo hated the slagcat known as Gloth. He wasn't sure why, but the pit of his belly felt funny whenever Gloth was around. It wasn't fear of Gloth's tearing teeth or his curved claws; Migo had massive teeth and claws and Broxo loved Migo more than anything. But there was just this particular feeling in his belly that he couldn't quite explain. It wasn't like sick, or scared, and it certainly wasn't hungry. Broxo knew that feeling, all right, and it was that feeling that had gotten him into this whole mess.
Gloth's jaws opened and the goat's head slopped to the ground at Broxo's feet. Broxo looked down, anger welling up like water in a pitcher plant.
"Where is the rest?" Broxo snarled. Gloth slumped lazily to the rocks just above the young barbarian king's head.
"Sorry, boy. There just aren't as many goats around as there used to be."
"Muckface! So you eat this one and only throw Broxo its head?" Gloth began licking the blood from his paws, looking indifferent to the anger in Broxo's voice.
"There wasn't much left of that one when I killed it," Gloth replied coolly. "If you don't like the way I hunt, then find someone else to work with."
Broxo fumed. The other inhabitants of the mountain were precious few. Broxo already shared his home and what food he could with his protector, the great snowbeast Migo; and Migo already hunted more than anyone else. There was also the witch Ulith, who was strange, beautiful and very helpful to poor Broxo. But she was no hunter. In times like these, Broxo's deepest wish was for the return of his grandmother, but she had perished long ago and his distant memories of her wouldn't keep Broxo's belly full. Staring at Gloth, Broxo began to feel as though he was trapped in mud. His shoulders tightened and burned with frustration.
"What about the murrs?" Gloth finally asked. The slagcat's job was to hunt the goats that still roamed lands towards the north, past the old ruins where Broxo would never dare set foot for anything. The young barbarian's job was to hunt the murr birds and bring them in exchange for the hearty and greasy goat meat. He was good at it, and he never failed to bring at least one of the birds for Gloth. For a moment, Broxo was tempted to lie about his spoils and punish Gloth for not bringing him an entire goat. But he was bad at lying and even as his brain urged him to do it, his mouth instead told the truth. Broxo wished he were as good at lying as he was at catching murrs.
"Broxo caught two," he stated as he tossed them up onto the rocks by Gloth's feet. The animal's eyes glinted and he immediately choked them down, feathers and all. Broxo's nose wrinkled in disgust. Gloth's serpentine tongue curled around his muzzle, smacking at the remains of what used to be two very handsome fowl. Then his large, pointed ears suddenly swiveled and he looked up as a massive, shaggy white form shambled up behind Broxo. Broxo was always a little jealous of the creatures who could hear or smell things just a moment before he could.
Migo bent his giant white head down and sniffed the bloodied goat head at Broxo's feet. He snorted and looked at his adopted cub. Broxo rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively. "It's yours. Eat it." Migo complied.
"I really am sorry," Gloth said a little nervously as he rose to his feet. Gloth was big, but Migo was bigger. "I'll have more goats for you next time, I promise. It's not right for me to have eaten so wonderfully and for you to go hungry. You'll give me another chance, won't you?" Broxo nodded slowly, gazing at the ground. Gloth began to leave, then turned back.
"I almost forgot! There is something I wanted to ask of the Great King Broxo."
"What?" Broxo's brow furrowed.
"The murr are absolutely delicious. But is there any way you could find the time to also catch a fish or two? I know how good you are at it, and if you do, I promise to bring you three goats next time! I'm sure I can do that by the next full moon!" Migo snorted and rumbled low in his throat. Broxo's eyebrow shot up.
"Yes! Absolutely! I just need a little extra time, but I know I can do that for you." Gloth showed his crooked teeth in a dubious attempt at a smile.
"Fine," Broxo sighed.
Gloth bowed his head deeply. "I am so glad I can help you like this. We're in this together, boy. Thank you!" With that, Gloth bounded off continuing to lick his lips. Broxo was still hungry.
The next morning, Broxo decided to visit Ulith. Climbing up to the witch's keep, Broxo rehearsed how he would ask her for help. He was just so sick and tired of eating the small, gamey hissers - lizards whose heads he crushed in order to kill them. "Broxo would like to do that to Gloth," he muttered to himself.
He was surprised, but also relieved when he didn't need to ask Ulith for food at all. She had already gleaned his purpose for being there and wasn't nearly as annoyed as he feared she'd be. She handed him a few of the red roots she grew nearby. Broxo twas beginning to think that learning how to grow things might be a good skill for him and his belly to have. "Oh, Broxo," her keen eyes washed over his body and, it felt, through his soul. "You know I don't mind sharing with you anything you need. Anything at all. But we must keep things fair between us or else the balance will be lost, no?"
"No. Yes? Er..." Broxo swallowed hard. Ulith's tongue was much better at words than his was.
"In exchange," she continued smoothly, "I need you to go south to the mudpits and fetch me some of the welb roots there. You may keep one for yourself. They ward off demons and bad spirits." Ulith turned away and began to fuss with a few of the bowls and odd trinkets she kept lying about. Broxo nodded. At least the errand would keep his mind off his belly for a few hours.
"Good luck," Ulith said with a smile as he left. Needless to say, Ulith also gave Broxo odd feelings, though not quite the same feelings as Gloth did. They confused him and, at the end of the day, he kind of wanted to just punch her in the nose.
The sky over Peryton Peak was always hazy, but the clouds were particularly heavy above the mudpits. Rain was coming and Broxo didn't feel like getting caught in it. At least Migo was nearby for him to ride should they need to dash home. His fingers pierced the soft ground and he carefully unearthed the twisted, spherical welb roots.
"Broxo, King of All-Mountain, is sorry that his must dig you up for the great and wise Ulith." He placed each bulb gingerly into his fur sack. Just then, he heard an odd noise far off. It could very well have just been Migo, but the young barbarian instinctively fell silent and still, save for his hand sliding over to the hilt of his sword. Slowly, he rose to his feet.
The mudpits were a low area on the mountain and there was not much to hide behind. The fog was rolling in all around him and Broxo cocked his head, hoping his ears could cut into the silence. His head snapped quickly as he heard the noise again - a faint, cold bleat.
Broxo drew his sword and waded into the fog, his feet squishing in the mud. The sound, though still weak, was becoming more audible. He looked down and saw familiar, cloven tracks dotting the land around him, first in haphazard directions, but then slowly convening into one large mass of hoof prints. His heart swelled at the thought of stumbling on a herd of goats and not needing that muckface Gloth anymore. Broxo knew it was foolish to run off blindly without Migo, but all the same he quickened his pace and followed the evidence of his quarry into the thick mist.
The fog thickened until Broxo could hardly see his own feet, but the bleating and shuffling told him he was nearing his prize. All at once, the ground before him dropped sharply and the prints he had be tracking lead down into a large, craggy pit. Broxo dropped to the ground and peered over the edge.
There were goats, all right. At least a dozen. But they were crammed on top of one another: weak, thin and sick. One was bleating, hoarse and raspy. Another was weakly trying to climb the walls of its stony prison, but its hooves just slid back down the rocks knocking the pathetic creature onto its back. It lay there for a minute before shuddering to its feet. The goats had clearly been there for some time and had mostly given up on trying to escape.
The live ones, anyways.
Broxo wasn't quite sure what to do. They must have fallen into the pit, blinded by the fog, which would explain why Gloth had said that the goats up north weren't as numerous. But as he circled the pit looking for either a suitable way up or down, Broxo saw something that troubled him: claw marks.
"Gloth!" he snarled.
"Found my secret, eh?" Broxo whirled around to see Gloth's dark shape behind him. He knew the slagcat could have easily killed him with a bite to the neck, but he was so angry that he didn't care.
"You! You did this? You chased the goats into the trap and said there were no more! You cheated Broxo!" He raised his sword angrily.
"Watch it boy! Don't make a move you can't back up!" Gloth crouched, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. His face showed plain contempt.
"You said we were working together you lying sack of-"
The slagcat charged, knocking Broxo backwards into the rocky pit. He scrambled to his feet and gasped for air. Gloth's derisive laughter rang out through the mist above.
"Now, I will be the only King of Peryton Peak! The tastiest blood is foolish blood!" But before he could lower his head into the pit to spit forth a good taunting, Broxo burst forth fueled by rage and adrenaline. Gloth hadn't accounted for hands and feet being better at climbing than cloven hooves. Startled, he lurched back to dodge the sharp metal blade that now swung in a clean arc towards his head. But he wasn't fast enough. Gloth caterwauled and shook his mane erratically, spattering blood. The boy had managed to slice the slagcat's ear clean off. Enraged, Gloth leapt at Broxo.
Broxo danced backwards, avoiding Gloth's black claws. He was angry, but Gloth was incoherent with pain and rage, and Broxo used that and the fog to his advantage. Gloth swiped and bit wildly, intent on disemboweling the boy.
Broxo skipped and dodged away, waiting for an opening to plunge his sword into the animal's head or chest. But Gloth had become a whirlwind and any sort of measured strike became nearly impossible. Broxo turned quickly, hoping to put more distance between him and the teeth that dripped with danger. It was a mistake. Gloth snagged Broxo's fur cloak, dragging him to the stony ground. Suddenly, Broxo was in a panic. He swung his sword wildly, hoping beyond hope to connect with the creature just enough to loosen his grip.
There was a screech and a spray of blood.
"Maggot!" Gloth gasped
Suddenly free of the beast, Broxo scrambled to his feet and grasped at his cloak. Two of Gloth's taloned toes hung amongst the fur. Broxo shook them loose, widened his stance, and prepared to strike once again while Gloth was down. But the slagcat shook off his confusion and lunged with terrible speed.
Broxo had only one option: make the kill or die. Time seemed to slow to a terrible crawl.
That's when Migo's giant, shaggy form burst in between the two combatants, slamming the slagcat out of midair. The mist dissipated in all directions from the thundering blow. Gloth was stunned, but Migo roared, his hot breath and spittle a warning to the slagcat that the next thing to come from his mouth would be doom.
Broxo felt as though his heart had burst through his chest and was now hammering angrily against the inside of his scale mail shirt. Migo swiped a massive paw and threw the slagcat's body against a nearby rock. Staggering to his feet with a crazed look, Gloth just enough to leap to an outcropping and launch himself into the air onto the snowbeast's wide back. Migo bellowed as the slagcat tore into his thick white fur. He reared up and grabbed Gloth in his huge paws, then smashed him to the ground once again.
This time, Gloth was defeated. He hissed angrily, twisted his battered body upright and took off into the fog.
Broxo watched Gloth the Coward disappear into the depths of the mountain to lick his wounds or die from them - he didn't care which. He stuck out his tongue and then spat loudly into the silence. Migo roared triumphantly. At his side, Broxo joined in, the sound of his defiant victory ringing off of the nearby cliffs.
Migo turned to Broxo, his fierce snarl melting into licking and nuzzling. Broxo chuckled, his face now wet and sticky with snowbeast drool. "Broxo is okay! Just shaken and bruised." He hugged Migo's face and scratched behind his ears in the rough way a snowbeast likes. They both knew that Gloth would not be a threat for a long time. Broxo took a deep breath and sat on the ground to collect himself. At least all the murrs he'd catch from now on would be just for him and Migo. He just needed to figure out what to do with the poor goats below in Gloth's trap.
Broxo felt pity as he looked at the pathetic creatures. Sure, he'd need to eat them and he couldn't pass up a gift like this. But something still felt wrong. The goats looked up, mostly ignorant of the titanic battle that had just occurred. Broxo sighed.
As the rain began to make tinking sounds off of his metal helmet, Broxo pondered. Maybe he could just let the pit fill with water and the goats would float up nice and gently to their freedom. No, that would take too long, and the stupid things would probably end up drowning anyways. Broxo wouldn't want to be at the bottom of a pit while it rained, and as stupid as they were, he guessed the goats wouldn't want that either. He looked at Migo and pointed into the pit.
"Lift them out. Softly. Like a baby." Migo cocked his head. Broxo nodded firmly.
"Yes! Get them out safely, Migo. We hunt them freely or not at all. We have to keep things fair or the balance is lost, no?"
BETWEEN THE PANELS 2